My Mom: the Female Indiana Jones

Barbara IndianaAs I have mentioned a few times in this blog, I wrote “The Obsidian Mirror” based on American archetypes. I am no expert on Native American folklore, but perhaps I know a little bit more than the average person because my mother was an archeologist specializing in southwestern Native American cultures. She also excavated in Yucatan and Guatamala, helping to uncover Mayan pyramids and temples that had been lost to the jungle hundreds of years ago.

In fact, my mom, Barbara Moore Doyle, was sort of a young, female Indiana Jones. She was excavating at about the same time—the late 1930’s. In the service of archeology, she wielded a machete, slashing through the Central American jungles. At a dig somewhere in the wilds of Arizona she got blood poisoning after falling off the buckboard of a roadster and scraping up her legs. They were excavating far from any hospital—in fact they were far from any roads at the time. A young Apache medical student named Tom White Cloud (what a romantic name!) fixed up a drip of some sort and saved her life.

My mother-to-be climbed up the side of a pyramid in Guatamala and came face-to-face with a fer-de-lance, one of the most poisonous and aggressive snakes in the world.

“What did you do?” I asked breathlessly when she told me this story.

“I made a split-second decision between snakebite in the middle of the jungle where there were no hospitals or anti-venom—or falling. I decided to fall, and…just let go.”

“What did the snake do?”

“I don’t know, but I think he was just as surprised as I was.”

Fortunately, she rolled to the bottom of the pyramid with nothing worse than a bruise or two.

She witnessed strange rituals during the night of Dia de las Muertes in Tegucigalpa, and was perhaps the first and only woman, white or Indian, who was invited into a working Hopi Kiva.

Most of the time, of course, she spent crouched in ditches with a pick and camelhair brush, painstakingly removing dirt and rocks to discover whatever was there to be found. She taught me to walk in the desert with the “archeologist’s stoop,” scanning the ground for potsherds or worked flints. (Also rattlesnakes.) It was like a treasure hunt, and I still have the bits of ancient painted pottery and arrowheads gleaned from these expeditions.

My young mother even ran afoul of the Nazis. During a sojourn in Mexico City, she dated a man named Oswald (last name forgotten by me) who was the brother of the head of the Nazi Party in Mexico. He would take her to the Nazi Officer’s Club, where there was a huge portrait of Adolf Hitler hanging in the dining room. I was scandalized that she would date a Nazi, but she said that Oswald himself was not a Nazi and said that he quietly scoffed at the self-important posturing of the party members.

My mother’s archeology career came to an end with the entrance of the United States into WWII. She returned home to California and got a job as a riveter at Lockheed-Martin. Being bright, she worked her way up and obtained Top Secret clearance as an aircraft inspector. Inspecting aircraft equipped with radar required Top Secret clearance, as it was still highly classified technology. One day, she came home after work to find two FBI men waiting in her parents’ living room. They had intercepted a letter to her from her friend Oswald. Oswald had crossed the Mexican border into Arizona, possibly to avoid being drafted into the German army. He was promptly picked up and placed in an internment camp for suspect nationals. Oswald, with touching sentimentality, wrote to my mother asking her to marry him so that he could get out of the camp. As all the mail from camp inmates was intercepted and read, the FBI decided his plea was actually code—and addressed to a woman with Top Secret clearance, it set off alarm bells.

My mother explained the situation. Wonder of wonders, they believed her, and she served out the war at Lockheed-Martin, inspecting airplanes. She never went back to archeology. She had met my father when he was stationed at the University of Redlands with a VF12 unit of Marines. They fell in love, and were married toward the end of the war. My father had distinctly Victorian ideas, and disapproved of working women, so that was that.

As a child, I was fascinated by my mother’s early adventures, and asked to hear her stories over and over. I also asked her to tell me Native American folktales, and explain the different cultures and religions to me. As an adult, I asked Mom to write down her adventures for me, because I was afraid I would forget the details. She promised to do so, but was always too busy. By the time I thought to record them on tape, it was too late. My funny, bright, kindhearted, brave mother had descended into dementia, never to recover.

But I had grown up in a house decorated with Navajo rugs, Hopi kachinas, and many ancient pots, arrowheads, fired clay sculptures from Mayan ruins, spearheads, spindles, and other archeological bricabrac she had squirreled away for herself. (These days, it would be considered criminal to take such things from their sites, but back in the day, if the young archeologists took a few souvenirs, nobody cared.) I had the best show-and-tell possession ever: a human skull. (My grandfather had found it on an unpopulated island in 1917 and gave it to me for my sixth birthday—much to my mother’s disgust. She had wanted that skull herself, and it was one of the reasons she had become interested in archeology.) So it was no surprise that these influences came through when I finally decided to write a novel.

When (I won’t say if) my novel is published, I will dedicate it to my mother. She not only gave me a love of Native American traditions, she also believed in me as a writer. My only regret is that she didn’t live to read “The Obsidian Mirror,” because she would have loved it.

4 thoughts on “My Mom: the Female Indiana Jones

  1. Kathy–being as she was my mother too, I really enjoyed this! Did she ever tell you about learning Roman Riding (one foot on each horse, folks!) from the 7th Cavalry in Tuscon? She talked the U of A at Tuscon to let her work off her required P>E> units by taking riding lessons at the cavalry…When I asked her how in the world she managed, she replied,”Well, they made me ride through cactus, so I had a lot of motivation to stay on.”. What a woman!

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    • I’m sure my Mom would have loved your grandmother, too–and she could have conversed with her in French. Mom spoke five or six languages in addition to her other talents. (Not so unusual in Europe, but in the U.S.–astounding!)

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